The buzz in local sports media recently has been centered on Wesley So. He is a 23-year-old chess player who, if he stays on his current winning path, could become world No. 1.
He was born in Cavite, but he now lives halfway around the world in Minnetonka, a city in Minnesota that gets really cold in the winter.
Ten years ago, he was groomed as the future of Philippine chess. When he competes nowadays, it’s as if his roots have been erased. Three letters are affixed beside his name when he joins tournaments: USA.
In an article about So posted on the Star Tribune on Monday, the writer never mentioned he is a Filipino. Or was. And this is where the debate begins.
So has been playing for the United States Chess Federation since 2014, but he remains a Philippine passport holder.
“Will I change citizenship? That is years away from happening if ever,” So told Manila Standard on January 22.
So’s situation has divided the local chess community, according to Joey Villar, a chess insider for the Philippine Star.
“Some support his decision, while some feel he betrayed his country,” Villar said. “Wesley says he is a Filipino representing the US, but American and foreign chess writers refer to him as an American. Which is which?”
In an interview with ABS-CBN News in 2014, So voiced his displeasure with local chess officials when he won a tournament he wasn’t supposed to join. They didn’t recognize his feat, So said, because they deemed it an act of disobedience.
“No player should be treated this way, especially when I worked so hard to bring pride to my country,” said So.
The chess brain drain has been going on for years, with top players immigrating to the US, Europe and elsewhere because the grass is greener there.
According to this report, Grandmaster Richard Bitoon received only a daily allowance and free meals for this tournament of grandmasters. In the West, a grandmaster is treated the way the Philippines treats Manny Pacquiao — like a god.
So hasn’t lost in 56 matches, a stretch that includes winning the Grand Chess Tour and the Taal Steel tournament, two competitions that helped him shoot up the International Chess Federation (FIDE) rankings.
In December, So was part of the US team that won the Chess Olympiad gold medal in September, the first by an American squad in 40 years. He also took the individual gold medal in a competition that gathered the best in the world.
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess great and former world No. 1, took the time to give So a shout-out after So topped the Grand Chess Tour series in December.
That’s why losing So’s allegiance stings the most because he could become the world's top-ranked player. Since 1971 when the FIDE started tracking the world No. 1, only 7 players have reached that pinnacle.
If that happens, in the minds of some Filipinos, So would bring honor to the country. But in reality, it’s the United States that would receive the glory.
Villar believes So will be a world champion. When that day comes, the feeling will be bittersweet.
“It gives me a lot of joy knowing a Filipino made it that far,” Villar said, “but, at the same time, it makes my heart bleed that he is carrying another country’s flag.”
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